Friday, June 14, 2024

Affordable Housing Overlay zoning is moving forward in Cambridge without further adjustments, we read, “in large part because city staff wouldn’t have time to assess their impact before the zoning petition expires Oct. 29” (“Package of updates for affordable-housing law stays intact on the way to a final vote in October,” Sept. 12). But assessing the impact should have been done before the policy order for the change was introduced, kicking off the 90-day clock.

Since the municipal election is just around the corner, I urge the City Council to heed Planning Board questioning of “whether the council should wait for the original AHO’s built-in five-year review” and let the amendments expire so the incoming City Council can take it up again in the new session. This is the right thing to do as required by the oath of office to “impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent” on a city councillor.

City staff may not have the time to assess the impact of proposed amendments, but the Community Development Department will have time to establish baseline affordable-housing inventory; revise Envision Cambridge housing plans to set a realistic goal; and determine if changes to AHO zoning are warranted. If so, staff should assess the impact of potential changes and recommend changes with the least impact to the new council.

The state’s Subsidized Housing Inventory for Cambridge list 53,467 total year-round housing units, of which 6,896, or 12.9 percent, are subsidized.

Envision set the “share of housing production that is dedicated as affordable” between 2019 and 2030 to 25 percent, or “3,175 minimum net new affordable housing units.” Does it really make sense to have one out every four new housing units built to be subsidized? If so, we may have to live with 12- and 15-story buildings out of context, scattered around the AHO corridors and squares with no thoughtful, binding Planning Board reviews. Or would 25 percent growth of subsidized units from the baseline, or 1,724 new units, be more reasonable? That might be achieved by existing AHO tools and other creative, outside-the-box projects developed holistically by all stakeholders.

There are many such tools already in the toolbox, and there are many new and reused developments coming:

  1. Community Development lists a total 616 Affordable Housing Overlay Project units by nonprofit developers and WinnCompanies, a for-profit entity like the developer of the withdrawn 2072 Massachusetts Ave. project proposed under Chapter 40B laws. Not all of these may be counted, and CDD should update the list to identify new vs replacement subsidized units.
  2. There are 101 new Chapter 40B subsidized units coming in Rindge Commons Phase 1 and Phase 2 at 432 and 430 Rindge Ave. Inspectional Services does not maintain a list of comprehensive permit cases being developed; CDD’s housing division should provide an accurate count of Chapter 40B affordable-housing units that are not included in current counts of subsidized units.
  3. Inclusionary housing program developments such as 40 Thorndike St., which will have 48 IHP units. Community Development needs to identify other inclusionary units in the pipeline.

Among the possible tools that can be adopted:

  1. A commercial office/lab inclusionary housing program that would require large-scale developments seeking special permits to include ground-floor retail space; market-rate housing for office workers; and affordable housing for support staff with a ratio of affordable to market-rate units higher than standard inclusionary rules. This would be a real integrated work-life environment, and not only address affordable housing but also transportation issue for residents of the project. 
  2. Visionary urban development at the 4-acre Buckingham Field that would include this form of CIHP, creating an integrated new village.
  3. A Cambridge Community Land Trust similar to the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative suggested by former city councillor Jivan Sobrinho-Wheeler.

Young Kim, Norris Street